While ‘guitar bands’ once meant lairy lads playing stale rock’n’roll, this year more and more artists are making exciting music and have something to say
Outside of the apocalyptic headlines, 2016 can be remembered – musically, at least – for the biggest stars becoming bolder and more politicised, grime cementing its status at the top, and for artists like Beyoncé and Frank Ocean making ‘the album’ a bigger statement than ever before. While the world of guitar music is very different from the one that these artists operate in, 2016 has been a year of positive change here, too, making it one of the most exciting years for rock music in a long time.
While guitar bands dominated the alternative music scene in the early and mid-00s, things started to nosedive towards the end of the decade: guitar-wielding newcomers were signed by labels before they had a chance to develop, scenes came and went, and a pack of uninspired, clone-like bands formed what came to be known as ‘landfill indie’. For all the fun of this year’s #indieamnesty craze (where thousands dished out anecdotes about bumping into members of The Pigeon Detectives in a Wetherspoons) it reflected just how out of favour guitar music had become in just under a decade.
Today, though, the tables are beginning to turn. Through cooperation, self-sufficiency and support built from the ground up, bands that have remained largely ignored in 2016 are once more coming together to create something special. For the first time in what feels like years there are exciting, tangible scenes developing. Promising young bands are staking their claim, not just pushing boundaries musically but also setting up a path for the next generation. There’s been little fanfare about it, but that’s partly the point. We’ve rounded up the ways guitar music, in all its various strange strands, has pushed things forward in 2016.
SCENES ARE THRIVING THROUGH COOPERATION
Though the myth of ‘singular genius’ has long existed in rock music, most great new bands emerge when there’s a movement behind them. The jangly, romanticised pop of Brighton’s The Magic Gang has been making waves for the last couple of years, but the four-piece owe part of their success to the Echochamp collective founded by the band’s drummer Paeris Giles. As well as living in the same house by the seafront, squeezed together sharing mattresses on the floor, Echochamp’s bands also share a kindred spirit: the discontent of Abattoir Blues’ heady noise music has spiritual if not sonic connections to The Magic Gang’s own melodrama and the sunken blues of Manuka Honeys. It’s harder to form this sort of pack mentality in the capital, with bands squeezed out by high rents and a shortage of affordable rehearsal space, but a school of south London groups are giving it a go. It doesn’t yet have a name, but bands like the grungy Fish, the glammed-up HMLTD, the brilliantly disjointed Goat Girl, and the perennially frustrated Shame are all emerging in tandem and with a similar purpose. Bundled into venues like the Brixton Windmill and Peckham’s Montague Arms, their gigs are shambolic, but not in an old-fashioned, beer-stained, going-nowhere kind of way.
In the States, these movements are harder to pin down as scenes, but they’re just as vital. New York’s Letter Racer, led by Queens group Show Me The Body’s free-spirited, twisted noise, loosely includes Wiki and Sporting Life, both of rap group Ratking. Here, it’s less about the tools you use and more the point you’re making: in this case, Letter Racer rallies against gentrification, reclaiming and putting on shows in disused areas after being spat out by the city’s conventional spaces.
DEBUT ALBUMS ARE PUSHING THE ENVELOPE
A closer inspection of these scenes suggests guitars are less a crucial weapon, more a means to an end. And it proves true when applied to the year’s best debuts. Technically, guitar parts are front and centre, but the way they’re applied is rarely the big draw. London trio Yak are manic characters – at any of their shows, frontman Oli Burslem can usually be found half-slung over an organ – and their debut Alas Salvation is a careless partner-in-crime. Vicious noise lines the seams, bizarre orders being barked from the background. It’s tempting to view the record in relation to previous decades (Burslem’s uncanny resemblance to Mick Jagger doesn’t help), but that doesn’t stop it from feeling vitally of the moment, a feeling mirrored in the berserk, limb-flailing, teenage audiences that Yak tend to draw.
Sunflower Bean are cult favourites on the other side of the pond, and their debut Human Ceremony again flips old tropes on their head. Frontwoman and bassist Julia Cumming holds the ropes, with the band’s loose guitar notes bent over starry-eyed synths. Everywhere you look, acts traditionally classed as ‘indie’ are transgressing the norm: Australian group Camp Cope’s self-titled debut brings a wry sense of humour to emo, sadboys Whitney express deep feelings instead of shoving them aside on Light Upon the Lake, and Californians Partybaby rip up the pop-punk rulebook on The Golden Age of Bullshit. It was never fair to label the entirety of guitar music as stale and without promise, but 2016 has completely shifted the debate, without directly crossing into the mainstream.
BANDS ARE BEING SUPPORTED BY A SCENE THAT FIGHTS
With these bands hitting their stride, they’re backed by a community that fosters creativity and promotes important issues. Promising new bands rarely get a look-in from big-league magazines and traditional broadsheets, and coupled with the collapse of familiar outlets like The Fly, opportunities for new cover stars are few and far between. But, as a result, grassroots publications have started to make a noise of their own. Fanzines with tiny circulations – integral to the punk scene, but dwindling in popularity over the subsequent decades – have started to make an impact once again, while magazines like So Young are documenting the UK’s current pack, featuring new artists, through-the-looking-glass interviews, and illustrations bound for bedroom walls on their pages. These aren’t just nice objects to hold on to – they make new movements feel tangible, exciting and inspiring.
2016 has also seen the new, non-musical movements arise that amplify issues within their scene. Girls Against is just under a year old, but its five founding teenagers have already made a huge impact, campaigning against sexual harassment and assault at indie shows. A community of bands have responded in turn, with the likes of Wolf Alice, Hinds and The 1975 proudly sporting Girls Against’s pink badges. It’s an important step forward, mirroring initiatives in the US such as the ‘Keep Speedy Ortiz Shows Safe’ hotline, where the Boston group set up an instant point of help for anyone in trouble at one of their gigs. And just last week, more established artists like Wolf Alice, Alt-J and The Vaccines raised thousands for charity at a ‘Help 4 Refugees’ gig. Maybe it’s the circumstance of being broke, independent-minded, and having nothing to lose, but – in contrast to the mostly apolitical scene a decade ago – more and more bands seem to have something worth saying. It’s here that guitar music feels most straightforward, focusing on cooperation and progression instead of individualistic success.